Turkey's multi-party democracy gave rise to a handful of exceptionally popular political parties through electoral mechanisms. Although some of them even broke the 50-percent mark, there has been a consistent lack of genuinely powerful governments capable of weakening the guardianship regime. In other words, the people's democratic power was largely unable to transform the establishment and trigger structural change. Considering that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which brought about the 2002 revolution in the country, was relatively unpopular compared to some of its predecessors, it is important to ask what distinguished the movement from other prominent actors in Turkish politics. Strong leadership lies at the heart of the elected government's accumulation of real power under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as opposed to his predecessors, some of whom were significantly more authoritative than he was. A quick glance at the course of political history, the distribution of votes and the end of governments reveals important aspects of this phenomenon.
Mr. Erdoğan"s name has gone down in history as someone who bridged the gap between popular sentiments and political power-holders with an emphasis on the people's voice. Ever since the 1960 military coup rendered the Democratic Party's famous motto, Enough! The people will speak!, ineffective, there had been no political leader eager to break the vicious cycle and stand his ground. This attitude, which the president identifies as safeguarding what the people entrusted him, led to the emergence of a massive voter bloc for the first time since 1960. Had history taken a different course, there would have been no reason to describe the 2002 parliamentary elections as a revolution, since the country's second founding government would have been crushed by the guardianship regime.
For half a century, the guardianship regime served to deny the right of millions of voters to political representation and, at the very least, render their input meaningless. Mr. Erdoğan's leadership skills proved valuable in translating votes into policy and incorporating popular demands into his party's platform. The masses, in turn, grew more confident about their role in the political system and delegated authority to Mr. Erdoğan. The high level of interaction between the social base and the political leadership gave rise to a strong connection.
Clearly, the above situation was significantly different than the experiences of mainstream political parties which, unlike the Welfare Party and the Nationalist Movement Party, lacked a coherent ideology. Although Adnan Menderes and Turgut Özal received a record number of votes in popular elections, they never had the same kind of connection with the masses as President Erdoğan had. More importantly, they did not challenge the limits of their power identified by the guardianship regime - which was not necessarily a failure on their part, but merely part of the course of Turkey's political history. Former leaders, as a matter of fact, lacked the capacity and context to weaken the establishment.
This, of course, does not mean that the pre-2002 political landscape made things easy for Mr. Erdoğan: Just five years prior to the 2002 elections, his party was ousted from power by the military. And Erdoğan pursued a leadership position in the country at a time when the guardianship regime had become more influential than before. Although no blood was spilled during the 1997 military coup, both politicians and ordinary citizens ended up believing that the country had already passed the point of no return. As such, Erdoğan had to show leadership against the backdrop of immense political pressures. It was at this point that the people stood with the emerging leader and proceeded to consolidate the Justice and Development Party's power in the 2007 elections.
In retrospect, it was Erdoğan's leadership that turned the 2002 elections into a revolutionary development and distinguished him from previous generations of politicians. While most observers explained Erdoğan's policies with reference to his predecessors up until his 2007 election victory, his predecessors came to be evaluated with reference to Erdoğan from that point on. Over time, Erdoğan's influence exceeded Turkey's national borders to leave no doubt about his role as a strong leader, and to turn him into an important figure when the Arab Spring led to a global debate on leaderless revolutions. It was the 2002 revolution, however, that turned Erdoğan into a leader and revealed his take on history, time and space.